For history-lovers, researchers, students and anyone who knows the song "John Henry", this fascinating journey takes us through the research of author Scott Reynolds Nelson as he attempts to track down the real John Henry. Beginning with the lyrics from the song, he measures it against the work and rhythms of the "trackliners"; visits the supposed location of the race between John Henry and the Steam Drill; searches through boxes of dusty library records and journeys to the sites where John Henry might have lived, worked and died. When he finally reaches a breakthrough, the reader excitedly sees where what could have been dead-end research falls into place, giving up a portrait of who John Henry was and why he became the hero of the song. Historical photographs and artwork depicting John Henry is included throughout on sepia-toned pages. 64 pages with appendices, a map, and notes on how to be a historian; indexed. Hardcover with dust jacket. Ages 10-14.
Who was the real John Henry? The story of this legendary African-American figure has come down to us in so many songs, stories, and plays, that the facts are often lost. Historian Scott Nelson brings John Henry alive for young readers in his personal quest for the true story of the man behind the myth. Nelson presents the famous folk song as a mystery to be unraveled, identifying the embedded clues within the lyrics, which he examines to uncover many surprising truths. He investigates the legend and reveals the real John Henry in this beautifully illustrated book.
Nelson’s narrative is multilayered, interweaving the story of the building of the railroads, the period of Reconstruction, folk tales, American mythology, and an exploration of the tradition of work songs and their evolution into blues and rock and roll. This is also the story of the author’s search for the flesh-and-blood man who became an American folk hero; Nelson gives a first-person account of how the historian works, showing history as a process of discovery. Readers rediscover an African-American folk hero. We meet John Henry, the man who worked for the railroad, driving steel spikes. When the railroad threatens to replace workers with a steam-powered hammer, John Henry bets that he can drive the beams into the ground faster than the machine. He wins the contest, but dies in the effort.
Nelson’s vibrant text, combined with archival images, brings a new perspective and focus to the life and times of this American legend.
Author and historian Scott Reynolds Nelson is the Legum Professor of History at The College of William and Mary in Virginia. His previous book on John Henry, Steel Drivin’ Man, was awarded the Organization of American Historians Merle Curti Prize and an Anisfield-Wolf award. He lives in Williamsburg, Virginia.
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